Give dads a break this Father's Day
Being a parent isn't just something mums have a hard time navigating. Naomi Reilly uncovers some of the challenges dads face this Father's Day
When hearing about a bad birth story, our first sympathy usually (and understandably) lies with the mum. After all, in a physical sense she's the one who'll have endured it. But it's important that we spare a thought for the dads who have played a role in our labours. Ok, they may not have actually suffered the pain themselves, but they'll usually have witnessed it first hand, and this can often bring its own difficulties.
Last year, my friend Nick watched as his wife endured a difficult labour. Ten months on, he still can't help playing it over and over in his mind, and admits he's finding it hard to move on. 'I wish I could stop thinking about it but I can't,' he says. 'The worst thing was the feeling of helplessness. She had several blood transfusions and there was a point when I really thought she was going to die.'
According to Olivia Spencer, author of Sad Dad: An Exploration of Postnatal Depression in Fathers (£12.99, Free Association Books), fathers can often be ill-prepared for the experience of birth because antenatal care is focused on the mother and baby. 'Talking about how a father might feel during a birth is vital as this can make sure that they are emotionally and mentally prepared for any experience,' she says.
How we can help
If you're worried that your partner is having a hard time coming to terms with your birth experience, try bringing the subject up over a glass of wine, or encourage them to speak to someone else about it. Olivia believes communication is key. 'Talking is probably the single most important way we can help fathers who feel traumatised,' she says. 'The more we talk about it, the more normal and acceptable it becomes for men who need help in processing births.'
In the first months after having a baby, so much of a father's role is about being supportive – being there for us when our hormones are going haywire, running us a bath when we realise we haven't showered in a week, fetching a glass of water when we're too exhausted to make it down the stairs.
This is all well and good in principle, but it can be hard for dads to constantly support us when – in our crotchety, sleep-deprived states – nothing they seem to do is right.
I admit I probably wasn't the easiest to be around in the months immediately after the births of our children. My husband was really hands-on with our babies while on paternity leave, yet I was often angry. He only had to mention he was tired and I'd fly off the handle: 'You're tired? Please. I'm the one up all night feeding. You don't know the meaning of the word. This is tired!'
And when he tried to offer logical advice as I struggled to breastfeed my first child, I'd become overly defensive, as if what he was saying was a personal slight.
'I tried to help, but mostly you didn't want to be helped. It was impossible,' he tells me now. 'Any advice I gave you would be thrown back in my face. Seeing that my opinion didn't count for anything was hard.'
Psychologist Corinne Sweet, author of The Mindfulness Journal (£9.99, Boxtree) says this is something she sees a lot. 'It can be very disempowering for a new dad,' she says. 'And when mums take issue with everything from him buying the wrong baby food to how they can't put nappies on right, it can damage a relationship.'
How we can help
Give them a break! If we just stopped for a moment and stepped away from the chaos, we'd be able to see that our partners are mostly doing their best. And that's all we really want them to do, right?
'Look to see what your partner has done, rather than what he hasn't, and praise him when he tries to help,' Corinne says. 'When he makes you a cup of tea, say "Thank you," and not "Oh, it's cold." It seems obvious, doesn't it? But when you're sleep-deprived, common courtesy can go out of the window. As for the support you want from your partner, she says it's important to be specific. 'Otherwise, how will they know?'
Feeling left out is a common gripe among new fathers when their baby arrives on the scene. Jacqui Marson, psychologist and author of The Curse of Lovely (£12.99, Piatkus) reckons that this is absolutely understandable, considering that up until now they've usually been the main provider, and focus, of love, affection and attention in their partner's lives.
'It all changes when the baby is born, because mum will be totally taken up by the practical, physical and emotional needs of the newborn,' she says.
The husband of a friend of mine felt so neglected after the birth of their first child last year that he buried himself in his work, and only blurted out to my friend how left out he felt when they were on a date night five months later. She felt sorry for not recognising his feelings sooner, but also admits she was so focused on her son that couple time was the last thing on her mind.
According to Corinne Sweet, this is something that's happened since beyond time. She explains, 'As psychologists we talk of the nursing couple, where the mother and baby form a close bond and the man is slightly peripheral. In evolutionary terms, the man had the role of protecting this bond and allowing it to strengthen by remaining outside of it.'
How we can help
It's important for dads to be realistic in those first few months. The opportunity for lots of couple time will clearly be reduced, and sex may not be on the agenda for a while. However, Jacqui says we should try to have some empathy for our partners. 'Be kind to each other. Bond and act like a team, and don't let the experience of new parenthood drive you apart,' she says.
Jacqui also advises trying to leave the house together once a week, even if it's just for an hour. 'Try not to talk about babies during this time. It's good for you to remember what you shared before you became parents,' she says.
My friend Chris had his confidence knocked when his two-year-old fell off a climbing frame. 'There were tears but I could tell she hadn't hurt herself badly,' he says.
'I'd just started soothing her when a couple of mums rushed along and totally took over, fussing and asking her if she was Ok. Then one turned and asked me curtly, "Didn't you know the climbing frame is for over threes?" I felt humiliated.'
The mums may have been right but did they really have to undermine him like that? It seems especially ironic considering we want men to step up – surely we should let them, and not patronise them if they do?
Jacqui thinks so. 'When men and women become parents it's like learning a new, very difficult skill, like windsurfing. But, usually, the new mum is practising 24/7, while the new dad is only getting in a few hours a week. So soon, she can ride the waves and do fancy turns, while poor dad is still falling in the water and feeling stupid. At this point, many women get superior.'
The superiority includes snide remarks about dads being less organised, unable to multitask, but my husband is better at handling toddler meltdowns and faster at changing nappies than me, so go figure!
How we can help
We need to give men a chance. Corinne suggests, 'Let dads find their level, and if they're not doing something the same way that we would, button your lip. Usually they will do the right thing in the end; it might just take time for them to get there. We can have opinions as to what's right, but nothing is set in stone.'
When dads go to work
Working five days a week can mean dads don't spend nearly as much time with their babies as mums. And this can bring about insecurities.
Dr Laura Markham, a psychologist who specialises in parenting (ahaparenting.com), recognises that if they aren't around their child all the time, fathers may not have discovered the best way to calm their son or daughter. 'Their child may start howling for mum,' she says. 'And when this happens, I recommend that dads simply remind themselves they are perfectly capable of being a comforting parent.
They can just hold their child and say, "You wish Mummy was here, and I do too, but I'm right here to hold you and to help you to feel better. You can cry as much as you want. Everyone needs to cry sometimes."'
How we can help
'Dads should remind themselves that all kids act up sometimes, and every mother has been through it. They can just do their best,' says Laura. If dads are feeling insecure, it may be worth reminding them that by being there, they can have a tremendously positive influence on their child's life. Recent studies have found that children whose fathers are highly involved with them in a positive way will do better in school, demonstrate better psychological well-being and lower levels of delinquency, and ultimately attain higher levels of education and economic self- sufficiency. Among adolescents, an active and nurturing style of fathering is associated with better verbal skills, intellectual functioning, and academic achievement.
The photographs of Brad Pitt and his daughter Zahara, sharing a cuddle on a family trip to the zoo in Australia last year, were pretty heart-melting. Yet not all men find it as easy to show affection to their children. Laura explains, 'I think our society has given men the message that warmth equals weakness. But many dads just ignore that and are warm to their children anyway, especially if their fathers were warm to them. It makes a big difference in creating a more trusting father-child bond.'
A friend's husband finds it so awkward showing affection to his son that she literally has to tell him to go over and give him a hug. 'As he wasn't shown much affection from his father, hugging and being tactile with our son is something he has had to learn from scratch. It's been quite a challenge,' she told me recently.
That he's making the effort is a good thing though. Laura says, 'Your responsibility is to your child, who needs your affection,' she says. 'Affection makes everything go more smoothly with your child, because when they feel connected to you, they co-operate better. Who cares what anyone else thinks?
The other reason men can find it difficult to show affection is the fear of being judged. It's the most natural thing in the world for my husband to kiss and cuddle our daughters and son, yet he still confesses to being embarrassed at times. And he's definitely uncomfortable when our eldest daughter's friends go in for a hug too. 'I felt really awkward at the school pick-up the other day when my daughter and her best friend both came running out and jumped up at me,' he says. 'I don't mind being affectionate with my own daughter, but I wouldn't want to hug her friends.'
He's unsure why he feels this way, but he reckons that most men, in the backs of their minds, are always conscious of trying not being perceived as suspicious.
On a similar note, my own father has a host of insecurities on trips to the park with my kids. He's always been a great one for horseplay yet admits he just doesn't feel comfortable chasing, tickling or being overly demonstrative with my kids in the park. He also prefers my mother to take them to the public toilets. 'As a man, I'm conscious that even a grandfather can be thought of as suspicious, he told me. 'For anyone to think anything untoward would be pretty mortifying.'
It's worrying that if this is how my naturally confident male family members feel, then what chance do men who find it inherently challenging to show warmth stand? Not much, I'd imagine.
How we can help
Ultimately, we need to break down the gender stereotypes associated with dads in order for them to feel more comfortable showing warmth. Corinne believes this should start with our sons. 'We push away our sons much earlier than we push away our daughters,' she says. 'Instead of encouraging our sons to shape up and be a man we should be encouraging them to be open and tactile and telling them that there is nothing wrong with that.'
In the meantime, the very least we can do is reassure the dads in our lives that being warm and affectionate is a positive thing. And if it's good enough for Brad Pitt...